Don’t Believe Everything You Read

by Casey Lynn
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

What do United Airlines, War of the Worlds, and the upcoming “massively-multiplayer forecasting game” Superstruct have in common? According to one of the game’s designers at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, more than you might think.

When I was in high school in the nineties, a friend of mine wrote an essay about how the Internet could never be a legitimate research tool because the majority of people are stupid enough to believe everything they read without verifying its validity. I couldn’t help but remember this the other day when reading about the Google/United Airlines fiasco in which the accidental resurfacing of a six-year-old news story about the airline’s flirtation with bankruptcy caused stock prices to plummet by 75%. Of course, the truth became clear fairly quickly and the stock recovered by the end of the day, so no harm done, right? Tell that to the people who sold their stock while it was near the bottom.

The United Airlines story might have simply been old rather than fake, but as the Superstruct designer mentioned above pointed out, the War of the Worlds radio broadcast is proof that something doesn’t have to be real to cause a panic. The key is just the right amount of plausibility. What if the mistaken posting of Steve Jobs’ obituary had stayed up long enough to affect stock trading? And if things like that can happen so easily by accident, then what’s to stop someone from throwing together a political/economic version of War of the Worlds in a malicious way?

The concern with Superstruct is that participants are supposed to document their future lives using different kinds of media, such as Twitter and YouTube… which could lead to passerby reading about “Police fir[ing] on secessionist demonstrators in Oregon” and thinking that it’s true. So here’s the question: was my high school friend wrong? Are people actually smart enough to parse out fact from fiction? What about the difference between reading a headline on Google news and reading a Twitter feed? What about Wikipedia? How do you decide what to believe?

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